There’s a well-known Rashi on the first pasuk of this week’s parasha:
And we all know why בני ישראל are compared to the stars:
The problem is that this isn’t true. At this point in the story, they are not an numerous as the stars. Moshe himself makes this point:
And the pasuk that Rashi (based on שמות רבה) chooses to make his point is odd; there’s a much more familiar pasuk:
The key is that it’s not the number of stars that is the basis of the simile, but the names. This is ספר שמות, after all. The message of לְכֻלָּם בְּשֵׁם יִקְרָא is that אִישׁ לֹא נֶעְדָּר, that every individual is important and has their own role and own identity:
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky explains that we have the wrong source of the star metaphor that the Midrash brings. It’s from the other image of stars in ספר בראשית:
It’s not the number, it’s the nature of their individuality:
Why does that matter? The goal of ספר שמות is to give the Torah to humanity, and that can’t happen to an individual, no matter how great:
Torah has to be given to a nation of individuals, each of whom has their own approach to Torah. That’s the only way we can attempt to come close to שלמות ההרמונית של האלוקות. That’s why they have to be מוציאן ומכניסן במספר ובשמותם.
There’s another side to this.
Rav Kamenetsky points out that the decree was for (בראשית טו:יג) ידע תדע כי גר יהיה זרעך בארץ לא להם ועבדום וענו אתם ארבע מאות שנה. But the 400 years included all of Yitzchak’s and Yaakov’s lives. Even though Yitzchak never left the land, it still counted as גר יהיה זרעך:
Yitzchak recognized that he was still a stranger in the land. Yaakov felt himself a native:
And so, in this model of the אמת ליעקב, he was exiled to Egypt. And his descendants felt they belonged in Egypt, so ה׳ imposed the slavery that made it clear they were still strangers.
Why was it important that בני ישראל start in גלות? The question is often asked, why was the Torah given in the wilderness?
I would argue that just as the place of the giving of the Torah can’t belong to any single nation, so too the nation that gets the Torah can’t belong to any single place (at least not yet; the conquest of ארץ ישראל has to come after מתן תורה. I remember Rabbi Shulman’s first shiur in St. Louis, about the meaning of the word עברי. It’s not simply an ethnonym. Pharaoh initially calls them עם בני ישראל:
But from the start of שעבוד מצרים, they become עבריים:
And the term in the rest of the Torah only uses it in the context of those who are less fortunate:
Rabbi Shulman argued that עברי means “the one from the other side”:
Literally, a landless person. There’s a term that comes up in many “Ancient Near Eastern” documents, the Hapiru, that many think is related to “Hebrew”:
The Torah had to be given to עברים because its message is universal. It is not a law owned by the elites.
The message of פרשת שמות is that the Torah, the revealed will of G-d, could only be given to those who are נמשלו לכוכבים, all individuals and all equally important.